By Jamie Serino, MicroEdge + Blackbaud
Can we really make a difference where it matters?
Sometimes, it can be easy to go down a mental road of believing the world’s problems are so big that we need massive piles of money and a vast staff to truly effect change. If you’re part of a smaller foundation, you may have even caught yourself thinking this way at one point or another.
Can small foundations with limited staff and limited assets make a big difference?
“Absolutely,” says Exponent Philanthropy CEO Henry Berman.
I spoke recently with Henry, also co-trustee of a $20 million foundation. One of the most powerful undercurrents to our conversation was Henry’s focus on empowering smaller foundations to deepen their ability to achieve impact.
During our conversation, Henry discussed three areas in particular that really stood out to me.
The value of listening and empathizing
No matter the size of your foundation, you can invest in listening to a multitude of perspectives to guide your approach to change. It’s important to bring your nonprofit partners to the table and listen to their experiences in the field and to the insights they bring that may add nuance to how your foundation understands the problems you’re looking to solve.
But Henry reminds us that there is incredible value in taking that act of listening a little further to a place of empathy. If foundations only “listen” to their grantees, they could be missing vital information or perspectives that they can only get straight from the source.
As Henry puts it, “We understand through listening, through communicating. Understanding the people we’re trying to help through our philanthropy is just critical… I need to listen to them. I need to be involved with them. I need to be part of their community.”
Particularly if you run a lean organization and have limits to the funds you can grant, you should look to deepening your understanding by venturing a step beyond your nonprofit partners to the end recipients. When you see or hear things firsthand, this may even change how you approach your work with those nonprofit partners.
Emphasizing this point, Henry said, “I think all too often many of us stop at that nonprofit and we don’t take it that next step… You know, if I were to say to you, or as a funder, you know what, I’m gonna go spend a night in the homeless shelter. I’m gonna walk in there… and really try and build some trust and hear what’s on their mind and think about things.”
The importance of approaching problems with a results-focused mindset
If you can deepen your understanding of the people and issues at the heart of your foundation’s work, you’re then in a stronger place to make better decisions about the results you want to achieve and how you intend to achieve them. We see foundations of all sizes shifting their approach to measurement and their definition of success to move away from “we granted this much money” to “we changed people’s lives in this way.” Foundations’ checks will always be important, but as Henry says, “There’s so much, so much that funders can do beyond the check.”
Smaller foundations can achieve change that outweighs their size when they are laser-focused on results from the start of their relationships with nonprofits or other collaborators. When you’re part of a lean organization, this is critical so you can make every decision and dollar count.
When I asked Henry about this growing focus on tracking and measuring, he used the homelessness context to emphasize the importance of defining the results you want to achieve, which should drive how you invest in achieving those results, saying, “We need to think about what are we really trying to measure in terms of seeing results. Is it simply how many people slept in that homeless shelter, to keep going back to that example, each night? And that’s all we care about. Or is it what’s happened to the people that are there? Are we able to help move people so that they’re no longer coming to the homeless shelter?”
The magic of convening collaborators
When Henry speaks about Exponent Philanthropy member foundations, which all tend to be very lean organizations, it reminds me of a quote from education activist and youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
In this context, one small foundation, or even one person within that one small foundation, can create a shift that brings about greater change.
As Henry says, “As a funder, you have the ability to convene people, to bring people together, to be a catalyst for change. Let’s say, I’m in small town USA and there’s a problem with high school kids after school… I may have $10 or $15 or $20,000 I can put toward something. And I could make a decision [to give it to a local youth organization] and probably feel good about it. But what I can do instead of that is I can pick up the phone… and call the director of the Boys & Girls Club, the superintendent of schools, the chief of police, the general manager of the biggest business in town… and I could say, ‘Look, we all know we’ve got a problem. Let’s all sit down and figure it out. I’ve got some money I can put to it. Let’s figure out the best way to do that and work together.’”
This jumping off point for collaboration can be powerful. Here, collaboration doesn’t have to mean only pooling funds to give a bigger check. The benefits of collaboration can be new learning, deeper relationships, and clearer direction on how to make change. In Henry’s scenario, from one phone call, a small foundation can have a greater ability to gather insight from these other partners for change (remember the importance of listening and empathy?) as well as the platform to form and strengthen relationships with a shared understanding of intended philanthropic outcomes.
When you embrace your foundation’s role as a convener and catalyst for change, even the smallest organizations can influence big change.
Jamie Serino is Director of Marketing for Blackbaud’s Corporations & Foundations division. Bringing nearly two decades of leadership experience spanning the private and nonprofit sectors, Jamie oversees the strategy to communicate Blackbaud’s brand promise to grantmaking organizations and corporations, drive market leadership, and establish strategic partnerships that lift the philanthropic sector. Jamie also hosts the Champions for Social Good podcast.